Understanding the Brain

Embodied cognition

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Philosophers, cognitive scientists and artificial intelligence researchers who study embodied cognition and the embodied mind believe that the nature of the human mind is largely determined by the form of the human body. They argue that all aspects of cognition, such as ideas, thoughts, concepts and categories are shaped by aspects of the body. These aspects include the perceptual system, the intuitions that underlie the ability to move, activities and interactions with our environment and the native understanding of the world that is built into the body and the brain.

The embodied mind thesis is opposed to other theories of cognition such as cognitivism, computationalism and Cartesian dualism.[1] The idea has roots in Kant and 20th century continental philosophy (such as Merleau-Ponty). The modern version depends on insights drawn from recent research in linguistics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, robotics and neurobiology.[2]

George Lakoff (a cognitive scientist and linguist) and his collaborators (including Mark Johnson, Mark Turner, and Rafael E. Núñez) have written a series of books promoting and expanding the thesis based on discoveries in cognitive science, such as conceptual metaphor and image schema.[3]

Robotics researchers such as Rodney Brooks, Hans Moravec and Rolf Pfeifer have argued that true artificial intelligence can only be achieved by machines that have sensory and motor skills and are connected to the world through a body.[4] The insights of these robotics researchers have in turn inspired philosophers like Andy Clark and Horst Hendriks-Jansen.[5] The motor theory of speech perception proposed by Alvin Liberman and colleagues at the Haskins Laboratories argues that the identification of words is embodied in perception of the bodily movements by which spoken words are made.[6][7][8][9][10]

Neuroscientists Gerald Edelman, António Damásio and others have outlined the connection between the body, individual structures in the brain and aspects of the mind such as consciousness, emotion, self-awareness and will.[11]

Biology has also inspired Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Eleanor Rosch and Evan Thompson to develop a closely related version of the idea, which they call enactivism,[12] and more closely tied to Universal Darwinism are evolutionary epistemologists such as Karl Popper and Donald T. Campbell[13], while Patricia Carpenter is pursuing a biologically-grounded account of cognition called the "fractal catalytic model".[14][15]

Philosophical roots

In his pre-critical period, philosopher Immanuel Kant advocated a remarkably similar embodied view of the mind-body problem that was part of his Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven (1755). José Ortega y Gasset, George Santayana, Miguel de Unamuno, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger and others in the broadly existential tradition have proposed philosophies of mind influencing the development of the modern 'embodiment' thesis.

Cognitive science and linguistics

Lakoff and Johnson ([[#

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According to Lakoff and Johnson, an embodied philosophy would show the laws of thought to be metaphorical, not logical; truth would be a metaphorical construction, not an attribute of objective reality. That is, it would not rely on any foundation ontology as might be sought in the physical sciences or religion, but would likely proceed from metaphors drawn from our experience of having a body.

Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner have advanced a theory of cognition known as conceptual blending which has much in common with the idea of embodied cognition.

Research by Tom M. Mitchell and others has shown that embodied features are an intrinsic aspect of semantics. These sensory-motor features include see, hear, listen, taste, smell, eat, touch, rub, lift, manipulate, run, push, fill, move, ride, say, fear, open, approach, near, enter, drive, wear, break, and clean. English nouns are found by computational linguistic analysis of over 1 trillion words of text exhibiting typical word use, to have exactly these 25 different semantic features. Each feature is associated with its own pattern of fMRI activity. The individual contribution of each parameter, when adjusted by the strength of its contribution to a particular noun, predicts the fMRI pattern when that noun is considered. Nouns therefore derive their meaning from prior experience linked probabilistically to a common symbol.[16]


One source of inspiration for embodiment theory has been research in cognitive neuroscience, such as the proposals of Gerald Edelman concerning how mathematical and computational models such as neuronal group selection and neural degeneracy result in emergent categorization. Drawing on experimental psychology and linguistics as well as Edelman and other cognitive neuroscientists, Rohrer (2005) discusses how both our neural and developmental embodiment shape both our mental and linguistic categorizations. The degree of thought abstraction has been found to be associated with physical distance which then affects associated ideas and perception of risk.[17]

This view is compatible with some views of cognition promoted in neuropsychology, such as the theories of consciousness of Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Gerald Edelman, and Antonio Damasio.

Evolutionary Epistemology

Theorists whose theories of embodiment of cognition are more closely tied to Universal Darwinism are evolutionary epistemologists such as Karl Popper and Donald T. Campbell.[18] In their view it is the action and the form of the body which are the sources of the knowledge for any organism as long as it reflects the environment good enough for the organism to be able to survive in it and be competitive enough to reproduce at sustainable rate in it. Blind variation and selective retention is the universal two-step mechanism which over the course of time enables knowledge to be formed filogenetically and ontogenetically, and simultaneously on different levels, both the hard-wired knowledge and the 'softer' ones.

Artificial intelligence and robotics

In 1950, Alan Turing proposed that a machine may need a human-like body to think and speak:

It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. That process could follow the normal teaching of a

child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. (Turing, 1950).[19]

Embodiment theory was brought into Artificial Intelligence most notably by Rodney Brooks in the 1980s. Brooks showed that robots could be more effective if they 'thought' (planned or processed) and perceived as little as possible. The robot's intelligence is geared towards only handling the minimal amount of information necessary to make its behavior be appropriate and/or as desired by its creator. Brooks (and others) have claimed that all autonomous agents need to be both embodied and situated. They claim that this is the only way to achieve strong AI.


The embodiment movement in AI has in turn fueled the embodiment argument in Philosophy, see in particular Andy Clark (1997, 1998, 2008) [20] and Hendriks-Jansen (1996). It has also given emotions a new status in philosophy of mind as an indispensable constituent, not a non-essential addition to rational intellectual thought. In Philosophy of Mind, the idea that cognition is embodied is sympathetic with other views of cognition such as situated cognition or externalism which is an even more radical move towards a total re-localization of mental processes out of the neural domain. It is important to stress that these views are forms of physicalism insofar as they maintain that the mind is identical with physical processes, though such processes are external to the boundaries of the nervous system.

Six Claims

The following “Six Views of Embodied Cognition” are due to Margaret Wilson:[21]

  1. Cognition is situated. Cognitive activity takes place in the context of a real-world environment, and inherently involves perception and action. One example of this is moving around a room while, at the same time, trying to decide where the furniture should go. Another example is day-dreaming. You are in a situation, but you’re not in the situation or 'present'. At the time you may be doing something, but your mind or your thoughts are in a much different place.
  2. Cognition is time-pressured. Cognition must be understood in terms of how it functions under the pressure of real-time interaction with the environment. When you’re under pressure to make a decision, the choice that is made emerges from the confluence of pressures that you’re under and in their absence, a decision may be made completely different. Since there was pressure, the result was the decision you made.
  3. We off-load cognitive work onto the environment. Because of limits on our information-processing abilities, we exploit the environment to reduce the cognitive workload. We make the environment hold or even manipulate information for us, and we harvest that information only on a need-to-know basis. This is seen when people have calendars, agendas, PDA’s, or anything to help them with everyday functions. We write things down so we can use it when we need it, instead of taking the time to memorize or encode it into our minds.
  4. The environment is part of the cognitive system. The information flow between mind and world is so dense and continuous that, for scientists studying the nature of cognitive activity, the mind alone is not a meaningful unit of analysis. This statement means that the production of cognitive activity does not come from mind alone, but rather is a mixture of the mind and the environmental situation that we are in. These interactions become part of our cognitive systems. Our thinking, decision making, and future are all impacted by our environmental situations.
  5. Cognition is for action. The function of the mind is to guide action and things such as perception and memory must be understood in terms of their contribution to situation-appropriate behavior. This claim has to do with the visual and memory perception that our minds have. Our vision is encoded into our minds as a “what” and “where” concept. Meaning the structure and placement of an object. This idea goes back to what we are used to and what we have been exposed to. Our perception of what we see comes from our experience and exposure of it. Memory in this case doesn’t necessarily mean memorizing something. Rather remembering in a relevant point of view instead of as it really is. We remember how relevant it is to us, and decide if it’s worth remembering.
  6. Off-line cognition is body-based. Even when decoupled from the environment, the activity of the mind is grounded in mechanisms that evolved for interaction with the environment- that is, mechanisms of sensory processing and motor control. This is shown with infants or toddlers best. Children utilize skills and abilities they were born with, such as sucking, grasping, and listening, to learn more about the environment. The skills are broken down into five main categories that combine sensory with motor skills, sensorimotor functions. The five main skills are:
    1. Mental Imagery- Is visualizing something based on your perception of it, when it is not there or is not present. An example of this would be having a race. You are all excited and full of adrenaline and you take a moment and you can actually see yourself winning the race.
    2. Working Memory- Short term memory
    3. Episodic Memory- Long term memory
    4. Implicit Memory- means by which we learn certain skills until they become automatic for us. An example of this would be an adult brushing his/her teeth, or an expert race car driver putting the car in drive.
    5. Reasoning and Problem-Solving- Having a mental model of something will increase problem-solving approaches.

Criticism of the Six Claims

Some authors go so far as to complain that the phrase “situated cognition” implies falsely that there also exists cognition that is not situated (Greeno & Moore, 1993, p. 50). Of these, the first three and the fifth claim appear to be at least partially true, and their usefulness is best evaluated in terms of the range of their applicability. The sixth claim has received the least attention, but may be the most powerful of the six claims (Wilson M., 2002).

See also


  1. Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1992
  2. Gallagher 2005
    1. REDIRECTTemplate:Harvard citation text,
    2. REDIRECTTemplate:Harvard citation text,
    3. REDIRECTTemplate:Harvard citation text,
    4. REDIRECTTemplate:Harvard citation text, Lakoff & Nunez 2000
  3. Moravec 1988, Brooks 1990, Pfeiffer 2001
  4. Clark 1997, Hendriks-Jansen 1996
  5. Liberman AM, Cooper FS, Shankweiler DP, Studdert-Kennedy M. (1967). Perception of the speech code. Psychol Rev.74(6):431-61. PubMed
  6. Liberman AM, Mattingly IG. (1985). The motor theory of speech perception revised. Cognition. 21(1):1-36. PubMed
  7. Liberman AM, Mattingly IG. (1989). A specialization for speech perception. Science. 243(4890):489-94. PubMed
  8. Liberman AM, Whalen DH. (2000). On the relation of speech to language. Trends Cogn Sci. 4(5):187-196. PubMed
  9. Galantucci B, Fowler CA, Turvey MT. (2006). The motor theory of speech perception reviewed. Psychon Bull Rev. 13(3):361-77. PubMed
  10. Edelman 2004, Damasio 1999
  11. Maturana & Varela 1987, Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1992
  12. Gary Cziko (1995) Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution (MIT Press)
  13. Carpenter, Patricia. Patricia Carpenter, Carnegie Mellon, October 30, 2007.
  14. Davia, Christopher J.. "Minds, Brains & Catalysis: A theory of cognition grounded in metabolism". http://www.psy.cmu.edu/~davia/mbc/. Retrieved 2010-03-30. 
  15. Mitchell TM, Shinkareva S, Carlson A, Chang K, Malave V, Mason R, Just M. (2008-05-08). "Predicting Human Brain Activity Associated with the Meanings of Nouns". “Science” 320: 1191–1195. doi:10.1126/science.1152876. PMID 18511683. 
  16. Liberman N, Trope Y. (2008-11-21). "The Psychology of Transcending the Here and Now". “Science” 322: 1201–1205. doi:10.1126/science.1161958. PMID 19023074. 
  17. Gary Cziko (1995) Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution (MIT Press)
  18. Turing, Alan (October 1950), "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", Mind LIX (236): 433–460, doi:10.1093/mind/LIX.236.433, ISSN 0026-4423, http://loebner.net/Prizef/TuringArticle.html, retrieved 2008-08-18 
  19. Clark, A., (1997), Being there: putting brain, body and world together again, Cambridge (Mass), MIT Press. Clark, A., (2008), Supersizing the Mind, Oxford, Oxford University Press. Clark, A. and D. Chalmers, (1998), "The Extended Mind." in Analysis, 58(1): 10-23.
  20. Wilson, Margaret (2002), "Six Views of Embodied Cognition", Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 9 (4): 625–636, http://philosophy.wisc.edu/shapiro/PHIL951/951articles/wilson.htm 


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